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Cold Weather Claims More Lives in South Asia - 2003-01-17


An intense and unusual cold spell is gripping parts of South Asia, claiming more than 1,300 lives. The cold weather has also disrupted transport and shut down schools in several cities.

A month of chilling cold winds sweeping in from the Himalayan Mountain range have sent temperatures plummeting in northern India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

These countries are more used to battling long months of summer heat and are ill-equipped to cope with temperatures that have fallen to as low as 1 degree Celsius.

Deputy Director General of New Delhi's Meteorological Office, S.K. Subramaniam says vast plains of the Indian subcontinent are all affected by the chilly weather. "The unusual feature is that we have very low maximum temperature," he said. "The day temperatures were about, even [on] some days, to the order of 6 or 7 degrees below normal. That makes the people uncomfortable and feel the pinch of the winter weather."

Most of the victims of the cold weather are among the millions of poor people who have no access to shelter or heating.

Bangladesh is grappling with its coldest winter in six years. Some 700 people, mostly villagers living in mud and straw huts in the north of the country, are reported to have died due to exposure.

In Nepal, officials say nearly 50 people have died since the cold spell began.

Most of the deaths in India have been in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two of the country's poorest and most populous states.

Authorities and charities are struggling to help, distributing blankets, warm clothing, opening up public buildings to the homeless at night and even distributing firewood to light bonfires on street corners. Schools have been shutdown until next week.

In the Indian capital, New Delhi, tens of thousands of migrant laborers, accustomed to spending the night on the pavement, are overcrowding city shelters. Freddie D'Souza is a priest helping to operate these night shelters. "The first objective is of course to help people escape this harsh winter, this cold wave," said Freddie D'Souza. "That is why it is bringing in 500 people - it almost went to 640 the other day. It helps them to escape winter, and helps them to escape people trying to push drugs on them, and also some kind of other possible human trafficking."

The cold spell has brought thick fog with it, keeping early morning temperatures low.

Narendra Kumar works as a guard in an upmarket area of Delhi. He says he only used to light a bonfire at night, but this year he is even been burning a fire in the morning to keep himself warm.

The fog has also thrown airline schedules into chaos, and disrupted road and rail traffic.

Sales of electrical room heaters, blankets and woolens have been brisk. One shopkeeper in a wealthy neighborhood in Delhi, V.K. Jain, says he has sold out his entire stock of room heaters. "Demand is more, but the material is not there to sell," he said. "Nobody had planned for such a long winter."

In Bangladesh, concern is mounting that the unusual damp weather and lack of sunlight may damage winter crops.

Weather forecasters are promising that temperatures will begin to rise in a few days, bringing respite from the intense cold.